If TV has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t trust your neighbors. As so many great dramas suggest, evil lives within our suburban enclaves — your neighbors might be mobsters or meth dealers or jihadists or vampires or aliens, and that’s exactly what makes them so scary. But the danger isn’t quite so easy to define on The Americans, which, after a slightly uneven start, is fast becoming one of TV’s best new shows. (As a vote of confidence, FX just picked it up for a second season.) Created by ex–CIA agent Joe Weisberg and set in 1981, the drama follows Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), two Russian spies living like regular lawn-mowing, station-wagon-driving Americans with their U.S.-born kids, a pair who don’t know that Mom and Dad aren’t really travel agents.
When you watch the Jenningses, you have to wonder if your average American is all that different from these KGB-trained superhumans. The couple may spend their nights donning wigs and eliminating threats to the USSR, but they’re also wrestling with real questions: Can you ever truly know the person you’re married to? (In a smart reversal, Elizabeth is the cold one and Philip is the emotional one, seduced by the Western pleasures of racquetball, vanilla-cream doughnuts, and his faux-American wife. It’s thrilling to watch the sweet, pajama-bottomed girl from Felicity transform herself into an intimidating killer.) And how can you raise your kids to share your values when they’re living in a brave new world? ”Things are different than they were when you grew up,” explains their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), after she gets caught wearing a red bra. ”People are freer.” What’s a bigger sign of independence — wearing sexy lingerie or fiercely defending what you believe in, even when you’re in opposition to your husband, as Elizabeth often is?
There’s also something subversive about the way The Americans asks one particular question: Who’s more empowered, them or us? Elizabeth, for example, has far more control over her life than her sad neighbor Sandra (Susan Misner), whose marriage to FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) is as much of a sham as the Jenningses’ union. Elizabeth and Philip’s hard-boiled handler (Margo Martindale) scoffs at America’s Equal Rights Amendment. ”These women here need to learn what you and I have known forever,” she tells Elizabeth. ”You can’t wait for the laws to give you your rights. You have to take them, claim them, every second of every day of every year.” That’s exactly what Elizabeth is doing. She’s claiming everything that President Reagan promised — not just the family and the power job and the picket fence but the freedom, too. And that’s the most unsettling thing about this show: If anyone’s living the American dream, it’s the two Russian spies bent on destroying it. A-